Soul food, art gallery to join SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s

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The original Rabbit’s Motel. | Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections

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After decades of stillness, the historic site of Rabbit’s Motel and Cafe has been resurrected in a major way, thanks to the efforts of local musicians Claude Coleman Jr. (the drummer of rock band Ween) and bassist Brett Spivey.

In 2020, the duo launched SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s, an affordable music rehearsal studio. Now, they’ve got their eyes on transforming the lot’s other abandoned building (which formerly housed a legendary, Black-owned soul food cafe from 1947-1980s) into an art gallery + revamped soul food kitchen.

Here’s the need-to-know details on the space’s history, and the owners’ future plans.

Before and after of Rabbit’s Motel | via GIPHY

From 1947 to now

The motel site (which now houses recording studios) was originally opened by Fred “Rabbit” Simpson in 1947 during segregation. Though it wasn’t an official Green Book listing, the motel was known as a haven for Black travelers and hosted celebrities like Richard Pryor, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and members of the Negro Baseball League.

While the motel ceased operation in the late 1960s, Lou Ella Byrd (the wife of Fred Simpson’s nephew) inherited the cafe and kept it open as a beloved soul food joint which thrived for several decades before shutting down in the early 2000s. The menu included homemade cornbread, chitlins, fresh vegetables, pork chops the size of bibles,” and a vinyl R&B jukebox.

Chef Robinson’s food truck next to the future site of Areta’s. | Photo by AVLtoday

A soul food cafe is next in line

Now that the motel rooms have been successfully converted to state-of-the-art recording studios, SoundSpace aims to open Areta’s Soul Food cafe by the end of the year. The eatery, which will be headed by Chef Clarence Robinson, will pay homage to the space’s soul food heritage.

Robinson, who also goes by “The Flavor King,” is known for decadent plates + “soul bowls” that feature bourbon mango chicken, honey salmon, fried tofu, and classic Southern sides like collard greens, okra, and macaroni and cheese.

In the floor above the kitchen, there will also be an art gallery space, and the exterior of the building will include murals that honor the legacy of the historically Black neighborhood.

Drooling already? Though we’ll have to wait on the cafe, Clarence Robinson’s “Soul on the Roadfood truck has been making regular appearances at the studio, usually Tuesday-Thursday, 12-6 p.m.

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